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Firefighters scramble to protect nuclear facility

/ Source: news services

New Mexico fire managers scrambled Tuesday to reinforce crews battling a third day against an out-of-control blaze at the edge of one of the top U.S. nuclear weapons production centers.

The fire's leading edge burned to within a few miles of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste, including clothing and equipment, is stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, fire officials said.

The town of Los Alamos, home to about 12,000 people, was evacuated Monday afternoon as a precaution.

The wildfire — which has burned 60,000 acres, or 93 square miles, in just two days — was as close as 50 feet from the Los Alamos National Laboratory grounds on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, a spot fire at the lab was quickly contained, and lab officials said no contamination was released.

Lab officials and fire managers said they're confident the flames won't reach key buildings or areas where radioactive waste is stored in barrels above ground.

For the stored waste, officials say a last resort would include spraying foam on the barrels to ensure they aren't damaged by fire.

Teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any nuclear or radiological hazards, said Kevin Smith, Los Alamos Site Office manager.

"The ... teams' work will provide another level of assurance that the community is safe from potential radiological releases as the fire progresses," Smith said in a statement.

The lab will be closed through at least Wednesday, with only essential employees permitted back onto laboratory property.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos, for many stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town.

Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The facility cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste disposal sites. Some facilities, including the administration building, are in the community of Los Alamos, while others are several miles away from the town.

The spot fire scorched a section known as Tech Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.

The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles from a dumpsite where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a dump site in southern New Mexico.

"The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It's a concern for everybody," said Joni Arends, executive director of the group.

Arends' group also worried that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where experiments were conducted years ago. Over the years, burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface, she said.

Lab officials at first declined to confirm that such drums were on the property but, in a statement early Tuesday, lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said such drums are stored in a section of the complex known as Area G. She said the drums contain cleanup from Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby and would be safe even if a fire reached the storage area.

As of midday Tuesday, the flames were about two miles away from the material.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Rosendorf said.

The wildfire, which began Sunday, stirred memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.

"The hair on the back of your neck goes up," Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. "I saw that plume and I thought, 'Oh my god here we go again.'"

"We're just hoping for the best," Vivian Levy, a resident since the 1970s said Monday as she packed her car and her animals — again.

"Last time, I just walked out of my house and said goodbye, and that it was going to be OK," she said before breaking down in tears. "I'm doing the same thing this time. It's going to be OK. I'm prepared to say goodbye."

The blaze also was threatening Frijoles Canyon, which is home to a number of sacred Native American archaeological sites. Also threatened, Tucker said, was the recently restored Bandelier National Monument.

Los Alamos National Lab was established during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general issued a report that said Los Alamos County firefighters weren't sufficiently trained to handle the unique fires they could face with hazardous or radioactive materials at the site.

Lab and fire department officials at the time said the report focused too much on past problems and not enough on what had been done to resolve them. Some problems also were noted in previous reports.

On Monday, lab and fire officials said they were confident that if the flames reached lab property they would be able to protect its sensitive facilities.

"We're in a much better place than we were 11 years ago," said Rich Marquez, executive director of the lab, noting the lab has thinned out potential fire hazards and has enacted a number of emergency protocols.

The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive fires in New Mexico history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned some 47,000 acres — 73 square miles — in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage.

About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire. That blaze also raised concerns about toxic runoff and radioactive smoke, although lab officials said no contaminants were released during it.